Air of caution

Film on recent U.S. tragedy avoids the melodramatic

CONTROLLED CHAOS <br>Passengers fight to take back the airplane in <span style="">United 93</span>.

Passengers fight to take back the airplane in United 93.

United 93
Directed by Paul Greengrass. Rated R.
Rated 3.0

The pieced-together story of United Flight No. 93 is a uniquely fascinating portion of the events of 9-11. Whether we need a feature film about any part of those events is, however, not an easy question to answer.

Nevertheless, Paul Greengrass’ cautiously ballyhooed movie dramatization of what happened with Flight 93 acquits itself fairly well. The film’s tastefully restrained approach to this unavoidably overwrought subject seems to have won a goodly amount of respect from otherwise wary critics and reviewers in the national press.

As a kind of docudrama fraught with painful recent history, it consistently steers clear of morbid sensationalism and maudlin melodrama alike. As a queasy kind of thriller in which we can’t help but know the larger outcome in advance, it generates an earnest sort of suspense out of the mundane details in an overwhelmingly calamitous stream of incidents.

The film’s narrative follows the passengers and crew of Flight 93 from the pre-boarding process in Newark on through the hijacking and the passengers’ counter-assault against the suicide-bombers, all the way up to the moment of the plane crashing in the Pennsylvania countryside, well short of the hijackers’ intended Washington, D.C., target.

The final reels of the film concentrate exclusively on the climactic improvised struggle aboard that plane, but throughout the first two-thirds of the action Greengrass situates the Flight 93 story in the unfolding events of the day by intercutting a variety of scenes at the FAA, NORAD, and several major airports where air-traffic controllers and others are tracking the increasingly devastating chaos in the air.

And some of the most sharply observed sequences in the film involve people on the ground struggling to comprehend, and respond to, the increasingly horrific chaos of airborne events on that terrible day.

In an era seemingly dominated by puerile reality shows and tabloid infotainment, the careful realism of United 93 comes as an unexpected relief—a pleasant surprise that is perhaps all too easily mistaken for something more substantial. Greengrass’ immersed-in-the-moment style, applied to characters and audience alike, creates an abiding impression of lucid, stoical honesty. But the persuasive matter-of-factness in all that comes at the cost of a more richly endowed narrative vision.